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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

September 2020


What research resources are available on professional learning and school improvement?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on professional learning and school improvement. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Akiba, M., & Liang, G. (2016). Effects of teacher professional learning activities on student achievement growth. Journal of Educational Research, 109(1), 99–110. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The authors examined the effects of six types of teacher professional learning activities on student achievement growth over 4 years using statewide longitudinal survey data collected from 467 middle school mathematics teachers in 91 schools merged with 11,192 middle school students’ mathematics scores in a standardized assessment in Missouri. The data showed that teacher-centered collaborative activities to learn about mathematics teaching and learning (teacher collaboration and informal communication) seem to be more effective in improving student mathematics achievement than learning activities that do not necessarily involve such teacher-centered collaborative opportunities (professional development programs, university courses, individual learning activities). Teacher-driven research activities through professional conference presentation and participation were also found to be associated with student achievement growth in mathematics. The districts and schools may benefit from investing their professional development funds and resources in facilitating teacher-centered collaborative and research-based learning activities in order to improve student learning.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Antoniou, P., & Kyriakides, L. (2011). The impact of a dynamic approach to professional development on teacher instruction and student learning: Results from an experimental study. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 22(3), 291–311. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This paper argues that Educational Effectiveness Research (EER) should establish closer links with research on teacher professional development. A dynamic integrated approach (DIA) to teacher professional development is proposed. The methods and results of a study comparing the impact of the DIA and the Holistic Approach (HA) to teacher professional development are presented. Teaching skills of 130 teachers and achievement of their students (n = 2356) were measured at the beginning and at the end of the intervention. Teachers found to be at a certain developmental stage were randomly allocated evenly into 2 groups. The first group employed the DIA and the second the HA. Teachers employing the DIA managed to improve their teaching skills more than teachers employing the HA. The use of the DIA also had a significant impact on student achievement. Implications of findings for the use of EER for improvement purposes are drawn.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Basma, B., & Savage, R. (2018). Teacher professional development and student literacy growth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(2), 457–481. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This systematic review explores the impact of teacher professional development (PD) on student reading achievement. The first part of the literature evaluates all available existing systematic reviews and meta-analyses of PD intervention studies. No quality reviews of PD and reading specifically (distinct from ‘attainment’) were found. There was a little overlap of studies in existing reviews. The second part of the systematic review focuses on the most recent intervention studies exploring PD and student reading achievement. The results of a meta-analysis of all high-quality studies are presented in the third part of the paper. This analysis showed no strong evidence of publication bias and an effect size for PD on student literacy of g = 0.225. This effect was moderated by the number of hours of PD whereby studies with fewer than 30 h of PD was significant for student reading outcomes (g = 0.367, p < 0.001) but more than 30 PD hours was not significant (g = 0.143, p > 0.05). Following a Weight of Evidence assessment, analysis showed that nearly all high-quality articles involved shorter PD. Weight of Evidence was a significant moderator, (g = 0.408, p < 0.001 for high-quality studies, g = 0.077, p > 0.5, n.s., for medium quality studies). Our review suggests that only high- quality studies of short teacher PD currently provide evidence of impact on student’s reading achievement.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Calvert, L. (2016). The power of teacher agency: Why we must transform professional learning so that it really supports educator learning. Journal of Staff Development, 37(2), 51–56. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The education industry has produced volumes of research describing what professional learning should look like, and, for the most part, researchers agree about many of the critical components. In 2011, Learning Forward updated—and most states since have adopted—Standards for Professional Learning that align with this research. The standards call for professional learning that is ongoing, embedded, connected to practice, aligned to school and district goals, and collaborative. This leads to an important question: If we know what good professional learning looks like, why teachers not experiencing it? How can schools and systems bridge the gap between the professional learning teachers need and what they are getting? The key is teacher agency—the capacity of teachers to direct their professional growth and contribute to the growth of their colleagues.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Carroll, T. G., Fulton, K., & Doerr, H. (Eds.) (2010). Team up for 21st century teaching and learning: What research and practice reveal about professional learning. Condensed excerpts. Washington, DC: National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This document contains excerpts from Team Up for 21st Century Teaching & Learning. This document includes the excerpts of five articles that provide a substantial evidence-based argument for the power of collaborative communities to improve teaching and learning. These articles are: (1) Professional Communities and the Artisan Model of Teaching (Joan E. Talbert and Milbrey McLaughlin); (2) Professional Learning Communities: A Review of the Literature (Louise Stoll, Ray Bolam; Agnes McMahon, Mike Wallace, and Sally Thomas); (3) A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation of Teacher Collaboration for School Improvement and Student Achievement in Public Elementary Schools (Yvonne L. Goddard, Roger D. Goddard, and Megan Tschannen-Moran); (4) Moving the Learning of Teaching Closer to Practice: Teacher Education Implications of School-Based Inquiry Teams (Ronald Gallimore, Bradley A. Ermeling, William M. Saunders, and Claude Goldenberg); and (5) Tracing the Effects of Teacher Inquiry on Classroom Practice (Bradley A. Ermeling). Case studies written by skilled practitioners who are working today in PLCs in schools around the country are also presented. The teachers in each of these schools have redefined their roles as they have become members of a professional community composed of accomplished teachers, novice and student teachers, and teacher coaches. Each case study tells the story of the process of developing learning teams, overcoming obstacles, and ultimately changing teaching to improve learning and student achievement through collaborative work. Individual excerpts contain resources.”

Coggshall, J. G. (2012). Toward the effective teaching of new college-and career-ready standards: Making professional learning systemic (Research-to-Practice Brief). Washington, DC: National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “To meet the more rigorous expectations embodied in new college- and career-ready standards, students will need teachers who teach in ways that are distinctly different than how most have been teaching. Students will need, for example, English and science teachers who give students more guided practice in reading nonfiction texts that are more complex than ever. Students will need mathematics teachers who cover fewer topics more deeply and who emphasize conceptual understanding with more intense application as well as procedural skill and fluency. Students will need teachers who continually work to deepen their own knowledge of the content so that they can help their diverse students make multiple connections to the standards. Students will need teachers who can work and learn together to sustain continuous improvement to ensure that ‘all’ students have opportunity to learn at high levels. To ensure that students have such teachers, in addition to high-quality aligned curricular resources, materials, and tools, high-quality opportunities for teachers to learn to meet the demands of college- and career-ready standards are crucial. The purpose of this Research-to-Practice Brief is to describe the elements necessary to align state-level policies and practices with one another and to move away from professional development and to move toward professional learning so that more teachers in more schools have access to the conditions, incentives, and the opportunities for engaging in professional learning that is less fragmented and more coherent, more relevant, and better differentiated. In this brief, the author discusses how state-level professional development policy, teacher certification policy, teacher evaluation policy, and teacher compensation policy can come together to build systems to support true professional learning. Throughout the brief, the author provides examples of states that are beginning to take important steps toward ensuring that all teachers are ready and able to prepare their students for college and careers in the 21st century.”

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Teacher professional learning is of increasing interest as one way to support the increasingly complex skills students need to learn in preparation for further education and work in the 21st century. Sophisticated forms of teaching are needed to develop student competencies such as deep mastery of challenging content, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, effective communication and collaboration, and self-direction. In turn, effective professional development (PD) is needed to help teachers learn and refine the pedagogies required to teach these skills. However, research has shown that many PD initiatives appear ineffective in supporting changes in teacher practices and student learning. Accordingly, we set out to discover the features of effective PD. This paper reviews 35 methodologically rigorous studies that have demonstrated a positive link between teacher professional development, teaching practices, and student outcomes. We identify the features of these approaches and offer rich descriptions of these models to inform those seeking to understand the nature of the initiatives.”

Davis, K., Rogers, D., & Harrigan, M. (2020). A review of state policies on principal professional development. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 28(24). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Although principal professional development (PPD) has been proven to improve school performance at various levels, professional development (PD) for teachers receives more time, resources, and attention at both district and state level. When PPD is provided it often does not meet research-based recommendations. The literature was reviewed and five criteria areas with multiple indicators for effective PPD outlined; these were subsequently revised and validated by experts in the field. The PPD certification policies of each U.S. state that made this information publicly accessible was examined through Department of Education websites, with clarification by phone when necessary. This study revealed that only one state met all indicators, and that most states did not have comprehensive, research-based PPD policies. Given the significant effect school leadership has on student achievement and school improvement, further research on PPD implementation should be prioritized.”

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J. B., Walters, K., Parkinson, J., Smith, T. M., Song, M., et al. (2016). Focusing on mathematical knowledge: The impact of content-intensive teacher professional development (NCEE 2016-4010). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report examines the impact of content-intensive Professional Development (PD) on teachers’ math content knowledge, their instructional practice, and their students’ achievement. The study’s PD had three components, totaling 93 hours. The core of the PD was ‘Intel Math,’ an intensive 80-hour workshop delivered in summer 2013 that focused on deepening teachers’ knowledge of grades K-8 mathematics. Two additional PD components totaling 13 hours were delivered during the 2013-14 school year: the ‘Mathematics Learning Community,’ a series of five 2-hour collaborative meetings focused on analyzing student work; and ‘Video Feedback Cycles,’ a series of three one-on-one coaching sessions where teachers’ lessons were observed and critiqued. The purpose of these two components was to reinforce the math content in Intel Math and help teachers apply the content to improve their instruction. Grade 4 teachers from 94 schools in six districts and five states participated in the study and were randomly assigned within schools to either a treatment group that received the study PD or a control group that did not receive the study PD. The key findings on the impact of the study PD on teacher knowledge, practice, and student achievement include: (1) The PD had a positive impact on teacher knowledge; (2) The PD had a positive impact on some aspects of instructional practice, particularly ‘Richness of Mathematics’; and (3) Despite the PD’s generally positive impact on teacher outcomes, the PD did not have a positive impact on student achievement. The study then addressed these research questions: (1) Was the study PD implemented with fidelity; (2) What were the features of the PD as implemented; (3) To what extent did teachers participate in the PD; and (4) What was the impact on teachers’ content knowledge, teachers’ classroom practices, and student achievement, of offering content-focused PD relative to business-as-usual PD? The results show that the study PD did change some aspects of teachers’ knowledge and classroom practice, but not in a way that led to improved student achievement. This may be partially explained by the finding that the math content knowledge and dimensions of instructional practice targeted by the study PD were generally not correlated with student math achievement. The one exception was ‘Errors and Imprecision,’ on which the study PD did not have a statistically significantly impact. Thus, future research might focus on identifying PD that will improve this aspect of practice. Future research might also seek to identify other aspects of knowledge and practice to target with PD that are more strongly related to improved student achievement.”

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J., Walters, K., Smith, T., & Yang, R. (2016). Does content-focused teacher professional development work? Findings from three Institute of Education Sciences studies (NCEE Evaluation Brief; NCEE 2017-4010). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Subject knowledge is widely viewed as important for teaching, and professional development (PD) often aims to build such knowledge. This brief synthesizes findings from three large-scale random assignment studies of PD that were conducted by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in the Institute of Education Sciences. Although the PD programs in each study were different, they all emphasized building teachers’ content knowledge or knowledge about content-specific pedagogy. The programs combined summer institutes with periodic teacher meetings and coaching during the school year. These programs were compared to the substantially less intensive PD that teachers typically received in study districts. The studies found that the PD boosted teachers’ subject knowledge and some aspects of instructional quality, but did not have a positive impact on student achievement. The studies also found that most of the measured aspects of teachers’ knowledge and practice were not correlated with student achievement. This consistent pattern of findings suggests that future studies should seek to better understand on what aspects of teacher knowledge and practice PD should focus, and how PD can achieve a larger impact on this knowledge and practice.”

Hansen, M. (2013). Investigating the role of human resources in school turnaround: A decomposition of improving schools in two states (Working Paper 89). Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Using longitudinal data on spanning the 2002-03 through 2007-08 school years in Florida and North Carolina, this paper decomposes the workforce dynamics among teachers and principals in low-performing schools that significantly improved their performance. In general, I find strong, consistent evidence of human capital development (i.e., improvements in the productivity of the teachers and principals already in the school) accounting for the increased performance in turnaround schools. These findings are robust to the inclusion of school random effects, alternative categorizations of both teachers and turnaround schools, and are observed across elementary and middle school samples in both states. There is also general evidence of productive incoming teachers helping to improve these turnaround schools, but little evidence to support negative attrition specific to these schools played a role. These findings are important as they document large improvements in the joint productivity of teachers in low-performing schools, a finding which is out of step with current federal efforts to improve schools that implicitly assume teacher productivity is essentially fixed over time.”

Herman, R., Gates, S. M., Arifkhanova, A., Barrett, M., Bega, A., Chavez-Herreias, E. R., et al. (2017). School leadership interventions under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence review. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) presents a renewed focus on school leadership and acknowledges the importance of school principals to school improvement and effective instruction (Public Law No. 114-95, 2015). The act allows states and districts to use federal funds for activities targeting the quality of school principals and other school leaders. ESSA repeatedly calls for the use of ‘evidence-based’ activities, strategies, and interventions (Public Law No. 114-95, 2015). The RAND Corporation conducted a synthesis of the evidence base on school leadership efforts to inform the use of school leadership activities and interventions under ESSA. This report is intended to help federal, state, and district education policymakers understand and implement efforts to improve school leadership that are consistent with ESSA. Herein, the authors first offer an overview of the ways in which school leadership may affect outcomes of interest and then describe how school leadership is addressed by ESSA funding streams and statutory provisions. The key questions for this topic are: (1) What is the evidence that school leadership matters for school improvement? and (2) What school leadership—improvement activities are supported under ESSA? The authors then describe the ESSA-defined tiers of evidence that such funding streams will require. They compare ESSA evidence tiers with evidence requirements for other federal education programs to identify ambiguities in the ESSA tiers. The key question for this section is: How are the ESSA evidence tiers defined, how does current guidance clarify these tiers, and what further guidance might improve the use of these evidence tiers for education decision-making? Next, they provide a brief description of their methodology in reviewing the literature and present findings on improvement activities that could reasonably be interpreted to fit within ESSA’s evidence framework, given the statute and guidance. Finally, recommendations are offered to guide education policymakers, practitioners, and thought leaders on the use of research-based practices.”

Le Floch, K., Garcia, A. N., & Barbour, C. (2016). Want to improve low-performing schools? Focus on the adults. Washington, DC: Education Policy Center at American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Issue: School improvement policy for the past few decades has been characterized by mandated lists of activities—both well intended and research based—designed to stimulate a dramatic turnaround in student achievement. However, this prescriptive approach to policy, particularly federal policy, has not resulted in the systemic changes needed to get the right teachers and leaders into low-performing schools to support school improvement. In the long run, this policy approach did not engender the school-level changes necessary to create learning organizations that support teachers and leaders. The Research: One key lesson from the past decades of school improvement research is that an explicit focus on improving the capacity and stability of teachers and leaders in low-performing schools would benefit these schools more than another mandated checklist of improvement activities. Schools can never be any stronger or more effective than the adults who work in them—doubly true for chronically low-performing schools. The Recommendations: With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state policymakers must prepare for states’ increased role in making low-performing schools better. We suggest that policymakers step back from requirements to implement specific improvement activities (similar to those required by the federal School Improvement Grants [SIG] program) and instead focus policy on the development and support of human capital. New policies must aim to get the right people in our schools and to create district and state systems that retain those people and build their knowledge and skills to turn schools around.”

Osborne-Lampkin, L., Folsom, J. S., & Herrington, C. D. (2015). A systematic review of the relationships between principal characteristics and student achievement. (REL 2016-091). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This systematic review of the relationships between principal characteristics and student achievement was created for educators, administrators, policy-makers, and other individuals interested in a comprehensive catalogue of research on relations between principal characteristics and student achievement. It synthesizes what is known about associations between principal characteristics and student achievement; specifically it summarizes the studies, highlights the effects found by the studies, and describes the steps of the systematic review process used. Of the 52 studies included in the comprehensive review, only one used an experimental design, and a positive effect was found. An additional 38 quantitative and two mixed method studies provided evidence that some principal characteristics are positively correlated with student achievement. However, casual relationships could not be established. The remaining eleven qualitative studies mirrored the quantitative findings.”

State Support Network. (2020). Designing leadership academies for principal professional learning. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A leadership academy is a formal professional learning opportunity for current school leaders, focused on augmenting knowledge and skills, increasing specialization, and refreshing leadership practices. States interested in supporting leadership academies through federal or other funding sources can look to current models of leadership academies to inform design and implementation decisions. This resource shares insights from a review of 10 current state and regional leadership academies, including trends in their design. The purpose of this resource is to help states better understand how to design and implement state leadership academies to support school improvement.”

van Kuijk, M. F., Deunk, M. I., Bosker, R. J., & Ritzema, E. S. (2016). Goals, data use, and instruction: The effect of a teacher professional development program on reading achievement. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 27(2), 135–156. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In this paper, we investigated whether student reading comprehension could be improved with help of a teacher Professional Development (PD) program targeting goals, data use, and instruction. The effect of this PD program on 2nd- and 3rd-grade student achievement was examined using a pretest-posttest control group design. Applying propensity score matching, 35 groups in the experimental condition were matched to 35 control groups. Students in the experimental condition (n = 420) scored significantly higher on a standardized assessment than the control condition (n = 399), the effect size being d = 0.37. No differential effects of the PD program were found in relation to initial reading performance or grade. Different model specifications yielded similar albeit smaller effect sizes (d = 0.29 and d = 0.30). At the end of the program, students in the experimental condition were more than half a year ahead of students in the control condition.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80–91. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “After an overview of the characteristics of professional learning communities (PLCs), this manuscript presents a review of 10 American studies and one English study on the impact of PLCs on teaching practices and student learning. Although, few studies move beyond self-reports of positive impact, a small number of empirical studies explore the impact on teaching practice and student learning. The collective results of these studies suggest that well-developed PLCs have positive impact on both teaching practice and student achievement. Implications of this research and suggestions for next steps in the efforts to document the impact of PLCs on teaching and learning are included.”

Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W. Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. L. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers; REL 2007-No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Regional Educational Laboratory - Southwest (REL Southwest) conducted a systematic and comprehensive review of the research-based evidence on the effects of professional development (PD) on growth in student achievement in three core academic subjects (reading/ELA, mathematics, and science). The primary goal of this study was to address the question, What is the impact of teacher participation in professional development on student achievement? Nine studies emerged as meeting What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) evidence standards, from more than 1,300 manuscripts identified as potentially relevant. Although the number of studies that met evidence standards was small, the average overall effect size of 0.54 was observed when examined within the three content areas included in the review. The consistency of this effect size indicates that across all forms and content of PD, providing training to elementary school teachers does have a moderate effect on their students’ achievement. However, because the average number of contact hours averaged almost 49 hours across the nine studies, the total contact hours must be substantial to get such an effect size. Because of the limited number of studies and the variability in the PD that was represented among the nine studies we examined, we were unable to make any conclusions about the effectiveness of specific PD programs or about the effectiveness of PD by form, content, or intensity.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Professional development” “educational improvement”

  • Professional learning

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.